Saturday, April 01, 2006

Study Something Real or Eat With Your Hands

The artisans at Kirtz' Shutter Mill don't look like greenhorns. Maybe they'd like some young blood to help with the backlog?

Warm Welcomes to: Readers from the Education Wonk CoE and Joanne Jacobs and I Speak of Dreams.

I'm not sure this stuff is related, but I see two forces at work on young people and their futures. After almost two decades on the planet, many current teens are infantilized, almost hopeless in life skills, and constantly calling mommy and daddy. Many are deciding (or being pushed into) their futures with a strange bias toward higher education as long as it doesn't mean learning anything, and a bias against lucrative careers with a physical component. There are lots of kids who aren't considering college for any practical or intellectual purpose, but merely because it's what decent people do and it's what their parents will pay for. Deal with college conceptually as optional or as other than a status bullet for the CV and you'll get static.

I've been thinking about it since Cathy Seipp's been posting about the outrage from the parents of future collegians for her support of her own daughter's early graduation and acceptance to college. Maia's been learning Russian and reads a lot, but she's not sporty or booked-up with extracurricular falderol- gasp- how underutilized! From reading Maia's blog, she seems to me like the kind of bright, together young woman that belongs in college and/or the world at large anytime she wants. She seems to be pragmatically concerned with what she can learn, and I don't doubt she'll find a way to apply it and keep progressing. So why the histrionic puffing from other parents?

Well, methinks it could partly be the horrific gear-and-advice crowd who've made modern parenting look to me like the least natural, most stressful, joyless ride I could imagine. No wonder birth rates among the "civilized" are down. There's very little relaxing and enjoying, lots of protecting and "optimizing" of children who outsiders can see frankly as occupying the big, broad part of the bell curve. Nevertheless, parents are expected to have lives heaped with costly, specialized equipment and the nimbleness to leap aboard the latest bandwagon of Miracle-Gro developmental theorizing. And if someone busts out of the current groupthink, choosing something quite specifically different, the latent insecurities and defensiveness rise up to get the offender back in line.

I say let college study actually create exceptional knowledge in some area, not rubber-stamped pop culture analyses while B.A. students remain clueless about the developments of civilization and science that got us here. Latin, Greek, de Toqueville, Hadrian or Socrates, the dynasties of China, geography, anthropology, the history of art or poetry or drama, politics, Cromwell or The Reformation, literature before 1960, classic economics, enough science to dunce-check a CSI episode- you name it, they don't know it. And neither they nor their parents feel the least ashamed about their lack of curiosity about anything great enough to be intimidating at first. These people don't need universities except for social networking and the adoption of a color scheme and logo.

Unfortunately, the prevailing wisdom is "college, no matter what," and the result has been a dumbing-down of college as it's filled up with people who probably don't belong there and whose professors are overtly discouraged from providing challenging material that could temporaily create unhappy-face grades. So, we get 50,000 surplus Communications majors and way more pre-lawyers than a healthy society ought. However, if we had a functioning educational system through high school, which some places manage and we used to do, high school grads would have enough literacy and computational functionality as well as general and operational knowledge of the world they inhabit to evaluate whether more academia suits them. Then, the less bookish or less quanty types could respectably head into programs of apprenticeship or vocational education that would actually fill needs that we currently have in spades. Like nurses, carpenters, auto repair techs, electricians, plumbers, tailors, and many other types of advanced craftsmanship requiring physical skills.

There will be heavy construction in the Southeast U.S. for decades, creating all kinds of opportunity from chaos for those who can turn the mess back into something usable. Other physical labor-based industries like dog grooming are growing, too, and there's plenty of room for people to build good lives for themselves with their own hands. So what's with the modern disdain for such necessary, wonderful work which currently commands nice earnings? Beautiful, artisanal skills are being lost because there's no one to learn them. Have you tried to find a stone carver recently? It's still in demand, but there's no supply. Within the context of the striking French students, Theodore Dalrymple notes the same phenomenon in Europe:

There are of course deeper but intangible problems that are even more difficult to solve than the inflexibility of the labour market. If you speak to small businessmen in France, they will tell you that the young in any case do not want to do the kind of work of which there is no shortage. At a time of such high unemployment, artisans have no one willing to be trained by them, even if they are willing to take the risk by taking them on. This is even though such artisans are so overwhelmed by work that a carpenter, for example, is booked up for more than a year in advance and can charge almost anything he likes.

Part of the reason I've been wanting to do the graphic novel is the joy of physical craftsmanship, in this case, draftsmanship. The weisenheimers should go to university and work hard, and if they can't impress or outthink a yutz like me, they ought to be chained to a library table or workstation until they can. And each one of them should know that a life built around physical engagement is nothing to look down one's florescent-tanned nose at. We should rejuvenate tangible standards in higher ed, resuscitate our trade schools and journeyman credentials, and renew our respect for each's unique contributions.


April said...

I'm going to be a butt-insky here, and I'm not disagreeing with you.

The reason young people get pushed into college is that almost no one will hire them w/o a college education. Add to that nonsense the privacy-invading credit check that some companies are starting to do on hopeful employees. I lay the fault for this conundrum totally in the laps of employers. They call the tune.

The office I work for is currently looking for additional department assistants. Which is what I am. They will not take anyone with less edu than a bachelor's degree. Thereby guaranteeing high turnover. The job is boring and the pay isn't that great. The last guy they didn't hire was bright, smart and could have done the job easily. But he didn't have a degree.

Like it or not, and I don' is something you're supposed to do. I'd go so far to say that it's now an absolute requirement if you want to succeed(have a roof over your head and food in your belly) in this country.

I am very pro-trade school.

Perhaps the guy pictured would take on an interested apprentice, college or no. Apprenticeships and Journeymen jobs are few and far between, these days. Personally, were I young and fit...I'd be one of the dudes making those stacked stone walls that last for centuries.

Henway Twingo said...

I don't think we disagree either. The people who won't consider non-college types are not the hirers I'm talking about.

For white collar jobs, I acknowledge college is almost always required unless you start your own company, because:
1) Comprehensive education, and parental dedication to it, stinks in so many places. Used to be a girl out of high school with 2 years secretarial school was literate enough to work as a paralegal. I wouldn't bet the farm on just any girl today.
2) Pay scales and job requirement lists became universal, measurable qualifications so people couldn't sue (and win) for discrimination. You can't hire a promising HS grad if another, less sharp person needed college before becoming a legit candidate. Never acknowledge that people have different aptitudes or skill levels. Ever. To me, this microscopic grading of jobs has been a wash. Fairer treatment for some, much less so for others.
3) Many people, especially intellectually undeveloped ones, like to pride themselves it takes someone with a PhD to do their jobs. Ask them, and most of the time, it'll require a cross between Stephen Hawking and Gandhi to handle the intellectual and interpersonal demands. They always think college is required, even if they didn't go.

However, we're in a period of low unemployment and high, unmet demand in many fields. I'm not talking about bank tellers or retail managers, I'm talking about the big swath of trade and other jobs which don't currently require college for certification or licensing- just the applicable skills. They pay better than entry-level white collar, and are going unfilled at this red-hot moment. I wonder how to get HS grads to discover these careers exist and to get necessarily small scale employers access to local hiring prospects.

Anonymous said...

I saw in the Carnival of Education that you and I have posted about basically the same topic this week. I must admit, however, that I think you said it more eloquently.
I would be much prouder were my son to grow up to be a stone mason than just another middle management type.
Perhaps, if enough people are thinking along the same lines, changes begin to happen?

Henway Twingo said...


I do think (and hope) people are beginning to question the value equation as we're discussing it. You raised some great head-scratchers in your blog's three-part series on the subject. Part 3 especially related for me.

We don't actually need everyone to have the same variety of vanilla know-nothing degree. What we want is for everyone to find a way to contribute that suits their talents and makes them self-sufficient. There are a lot more ways to do that than get enough attention today.